From November 2015

We are no extremists

I had thought of other things to share, but after the terrible events in Beirut and Paris, this would feel off to me. What I do want to share with you, though, is a statement that occured over and over again during my journey, in particular during the many days that I spent cycling and walking along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border: ‘We are no extremists.’

The mountains can be rough…

Imagine a rainy day, when a lonely cyclist pedals into a tiny village in the Wakhan valley, miserably cold in the wind. She stops to gaze at the enormous rain clouds in the valley ahead of her, sighs and gets ready to face those clouds. At that moment, a man opens the door of a lonely house and gestures that she should come in. Utterly grateful, I tell him in Russian that it is very cold outside. ‘Too cold’, he agrees, ‘you should be inside’. I ended up staying with this family for more than a day, treated with the warmest spot in the house (next to the oven), plenty of food and a sleeping place next to the daughters.

The warmest and most enthusiastic welcome I have received anywhere was by these two sisters, Madina and Odina, and their family

During the last months, I was fortunate to experience hospitality that is unknown of in many other parts of the world. People whom I had never met before and with whom I had barely exchanged a few words invited me into their houses, they gave me food, shelter and human warmth. I was welcomed in as a human among humans, treated not like a clueless foreigner, but almost as a family member.

Oftentimes, my bike Emily was invited in as well – sometimes even into the main living room!

Rare was the case that I had to ask for help. Most often, people approached me in the street, offering tea and a warm, dry spot at least. Those people were far from rich, many of them downright poor. Life in the mountains is harsh, living conditions as well – no running water, oftentimes no electricity, an outhouse somewhere in the fields or none at all. The food I was offered was simple – sometimes only rice for lunch, and then bread and butter for dinner. But it was not out of stingyness of these people – this simply is their daily staple. The luxuary of vegetables or fruit is a rare one, and if they had any, they would offer it to their guest. I was almost coerced to eat more, mostly by the elderly, who remarked that I would need energy to keep going by bike.

Traditional wooden ceiling, ubiquitious in the Pamirs

Most of these people were used to do hard physical work every day and they knew that getting through the mountains on your own steam is a tough task. Still, here I was, the tourist with the option to get back to her old, comfortable life at (almost) any time, while these people will stay – enduring the harshness of the Pamir winter, facing the deprivations of life in the mountains. And yet they shared with me what they could.

This lady and her family saved me from cycling a day in heavy rain – ‘just stay with us’

These people were all Muslim, and I was introduced to some of their rites and traditional ways of doing things. It became second nature to me to make a face-washing gesture and thank Allah after a meal, for instance. They never asked me to follow suit with any of their doings, but were pleasantly surprised when I did. In fact, I did not think at all about the fact that we did not share the same religion (I don’t even have a religion as an atheist). In contrast to other places I have travelled, I was also never asked about my religion (or the absence of which). Here, it simply did not matter.

Yes, there are mosques, but religion never mattered – surely nothing that divides people

What did matter to these kind people, however, was one thing. One thing that many of them pointed out, repeatedly, and with great fervor. ‘We are no extremists.’ It would have never crossed my mind that they might and I really hope (and am quite certain) that I did not give the impression that I might think that. Still, this was on their minds. ‘We are Muslims, but we are no extremists.’

Tajik boys and their donkey in the Wakhan valley (the mountains in the back are already in Afghanistan)

To put this into perspective, one has to think about the geostrategical situation of much of Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. The latter shares a border with Afghanistan over the stunning distance of 1344km, the Western part of it being very mountaneous terrain and extraordinarily hard to control. A very long part of this border (1135km) is along the course of the Pyanj river, which I followed for some weeks. Sometimes, the river bed is so narrow, that you can wave to Afghan kids on the other side of the border. In other places, the river was so shallow that you could have simply waded through and entered the other counry – no fences, no guards, no check points.

The Pyanj river, aka the border to Afghanistan (right riverside is Tajikistan, left is Afghanistan)

There actually are a few official border crossings in the area and some villages (such as Ishkashim or Khorog) actually have joint Tajik-Afghan markets in a ‘neutral’ area (e.g. an island in the river), which can be entered by both nationalities without requiring a permit. However, these are closed these days. Some border crossings as well as the markets. What happened? In their advance North, the Taliban came crucially close to the Wakhan. They were 20km from Ishkashim, when I passed through. I did not sleep particularly well that night.

On the road to Ishkashim, the only place where I ever saw a fence towards Afghanistan (the green line on the left)

‘We are no extremists.’ This statement can be seen in the light of the terrible attacks in Paris and Beirut, stating the obvious (Islam is not an extremist religion). It can also be seen in the light of the Taliban advancing towards the Tajik border. The people of the Tajik Wakhan are in danger themselves of being attacked by those extremists (I use the word rarely, but with regard to the Taliban, I think this attribute is fitting). In fact, the Tajiks already are under attack of the Taliban – the Tajik form the biggest minority in Afghanistan with more Tajiks living within the borders of Afghanistan (8.2 million, or 27 percent of Afghanistan’s total population) than in Tajikistan itself (6.2 million).

Life on either side of the Tajik-Afghan border is very similar – herding lifestock, tending fields, making a living

There have been absolutely disgusting bouts of hatred in Europe against refugees from Syria, following the attacks in Paris and Beirut. This reminded me of the Tajiks in the Wakhan. Threatened by the actual extremists, those who are already suffering are accused of being extremists themselves, feeling the need to state: ‘We are no extremists.’ No, you are not. You are humans and you welcomed me as another human. Another human, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or whatever else one might come up as a reason to divide humans into small, artificial entities.

Two old men with whom I had a lovely conversation without us knowing many words in either language
A little boy who came running after me to invite me in for a tea in his home

I wish we would live in a world, where this statement would not be needed. Still, this was important to the people I met – having this message out there, in the world. I comply. And would like to add: you are not extremists. You are among the kindest people I have ever met. I was humbled by your hospitality. Your heart-felt welcome has forever changed the way I think about how to approach complete strangers. Give them a smile and invite them for a cup of tea. Don’t think about what separates you, but what you share. Such as being humans.


Beyond rules

When you are travelling alone, nobody sets any rules for you. Still, some travellers decide to set rules for themselves, in particular when they are on the road for longer. One rule I encountered among cyclists is to cycle every inch of the way, for example. Others set out with the aim to only hitchhike. And really, it is totally up to you which flavor you want to give to your journey. Or maybe which challenge you want to tackle. Maybe even more so when you are travelling solo. Upon encountering other people’s rules, I started to think if I wanted to have any. The inner debate did not take long.

My main rule is: there are no rules.

And this, for me, is a lot harder than any other rule I could think of. Most of my life (and I guess this is true for other people as well), I have tried to fulfill expectations. Mostly my own, but also those of what you may call ‘the outer system’. Get good grades. Be disciplined in your sport. You name it. There was an inate desire for me to do so. I enjoy taking on challenges and getting through them – it is just part of my personality. Learning something and getting really good at it, maybe even excelling. Still, there were rules and there were goals. This part I know. This feels utterly familiar. It would have been in my second nature, an integral part of who I was before setting out for this trip, to say: ‘alright, I will cycle every single meter.’ Or maybe: ‘I will cycle to Europe in xx days.’ Set your goal, focus, discipline yourself. Easy. I recognize that this way of thinking, this attitude, is not easy for everyone – everyone functions differently (and what is easy for others can be insanely hard for me, of course). Also, those challenges would have still been challenges, also for me. Yet, it would have been the same, old way of thinking. Also, a way of thinking that embodies a thought that I am struggling to get rid of: that my life, I, as a person, only has value when I accomplish things. That it is quintessential for you to accomplish things, since that grants you the right to live, be loved and appreciated. At my core, I know that this is totally off – but it is still hard to rid myself of these thoughts.

Conquering Kyzyl Art Pass (4280m) – not to prove anything; it is simply on the way from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan

So instead of giving myself a challenge, of setting rules, I made the decision: there are no rules.

All of a sudden, you are confronted with insecurity. Absurdly enough, the question arose in my head: ‘Am I allowed to do this? Take a time-out from life and not even try to accomplish something specific?’ And then I realized that this is really at the core of things. Facing these kinds of questions, doubts, fears. If your mind is busy following rules, also your own, it is easy to deafen yourself against the voice in your head that asks these questions. And I am glad that I do not deafen that voice anymore. I listen. And I realize how the voice in my head is slowly changing its text.

Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting challenges for yourself. It may be life-changing for someone to set a challenge or rule, for a journey or a certain period of life, and succeeding. This experience may actually be novel for that person, changing his or her perspective on being able to rely on oneself, on being able to carry through, even when times are rough.

It is just that for me things are the opposite. My change of perspective is to move away from concrete goals, to move away from rules of ‘how to do things right’.

One of the things the road teaches you: there is no right or wrong

So when you are facing a difficult stretch to cycle, a steep pass maybe or a road with heavy traffic, there is nobody and no rule that helps you decide. Should you skip or keep cycling? When you decide to skip a stretch, do you try to hitchhike? Do you actually pay for transport? When you wake up to the sound of rain, do you stay and wait it out? Do you get on the road? If you are really tired in the evening, but have not written your diary in a couple of days, do you stay up to write? Do you give in to the desire to sleep?

A stretch I did not hitchhike

I have done these and other things both ways and other ways as well. And I realize that rules would have not made sense. Every situation is different, every situation requires a fresh perspective. I have caught myself a couple of times, saying to myself: ‘Nah, that is not the way I do things.’ For example, I had not paid for transport for almost two months. I either cycled or hitchhiked. But then, I encountered a situation (my Tajik visa expiring and next to no truck traffic on the road), where I actually made sense to pay for transport. And I realized that the challenge, for me, was to actually pay for it. Against my first intuition of ‘that is not how I do things’. The more accurate thought would have been ‘This is not how I have done things UP TO NOW.’ And then move beyond it.

So yes,I have paid for transport

I thought a bit more and realized that I do have one principle, a very basic one.
‘Stay sane, healthy and out of prison.’

That pretty much sums up my priorities. But it is more a reminder than anything else to take care of myself. Because, as I am travelling solo, nobody else will.

Staying sane:
If I realize that I do need company, I might stay an extra night just because I have met people with whom I bonded instantly. If I feel that I need a break from the road, I will take it, even if my visa is about to expire. If my desire is to do nothing at all for an entire day, in a village where there is nothing to do or see, this is what is going to happen. I just follow my intuition what I need on any given day, to stay sane and well. I have acted against this intuition a few times, and instantly got the feedback from myself that those were not good, sustainable choices.

Taking my time to acclimatize (Sary Tash)

Stay healthy:
My original rule was ‘stay alive’, but I realized that I want more than that. I want to take care of myself such that I am actually well physically, not only alive. This may sound really easy – it really is not for me. I have absolutely no problem with pushing myself to my physical limits and beyond (I have been in high performance sports for long enough). But if you are cycling by yourself in remote mountain regions, this is really not what you want. There is nobody to catch you and take care of you if your health deteriorates because you overexerted yourself. Staying healthy, taking care of getting good, fresh food (if it is available), resting my body – definitely high priorities for me.

Cycling very lonely stretches means being extra nice to yourself

Staying out of prison:

An obvious one, but also one that is a bit more crucial in some parts of the world than others, simply because the rules in some regions are a bit stricter than elsewhere. It just means that I am not trying to bend any laws. I am the most friendly and obliging person when I am get to a military checkpoint. And I will tell people in uniforms a lot of nice words, even if I innerly disagree. That simple.

Beside this one, basic principle, I realized that there is another that I am trying to follow:
Don’t be a hero.

In a way, this is just another aspect of all of the above. And again, it would be easy for me to take the ‘hero lane’. Accomplish some athletic feat. Pushing yourself beyond 100km on that tough day. So I am forcing myself to go in the opposite direction. Take it easy. Slap myself on the shoulder at the end of the day, even though I only cycled 10km in the rain and then gave up (and gave in to the invitation of a Tajik grandmother to come into her house for tea). Actually, slapping myself on the shoulder BECAUSE I made that decision. Because I was tired and about to catch a cold. In a way, not being a hero also relates to my other principle, of staying sane, healthy and out of prison. Trying something heroic oftentimes leads to actions that are not particularly healthy, get you to the border of sanity and potentially close to a prison cell or at least a fine. Actually, I make it a point to congratulate myself on taking non-heroic decisions. Taking a rest day instead of pushing through. Giving myself time to mentally prepare for a tough mountain pass. Paying someone to get me closer to the border when my visa is about to run out.

One of my host families in the Wakhan valley

And then, also tying into all the above, one could also phrase things this way:
Be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

Again, this is not as easy for me. But I am getting used to making purely pragmatic decisions. If it is early evening and I have not cycled as far as I had planned, but meet nice cyclists who are setting up their camp, I will surely join them. If I got taken in by a family and it rains the next day, I will surely use that chance and just stay, no matter my original goals for that day. Being pragmatic means, for me, that I leave judgements out of my thinking and try to only consider the facts. And some logic. ‘Rain outside’ + ‘I have a dry spot inside’ > ‘stay where I am ‘. Not that hard, it seems, but again, I sometimes catch myself diverting my thoughts into non-pragmatic ways. ‘Shouldn’t I be doing … instead?’. Life on the road is a good teacher, though. You are instantly rewarded for pragmatic decisions. Such as ‘if someone gives you food, take up that offer’. Even when it is tomatoes. Tomatoes are the only food item I utterly despise, but if tomatoes are the only fresh item to be had (as in: all the Pamirs), I will eat tomatoes.

A rainy day when I just stayed with my hosts

All that being said, the main rules still holds: there are no rules. And my perspective of life has changed in mind-boggling ways since I accepted this. It still is a challenge for me, to leave old patterns of thinking and also to not let myself get into routines (‘I have always done things this way’ is, by how, reason enough for me to try things in a different way). Looking forward to what happens to me over time with this different view of thinking!

Catching a ride over a rough stretch with one of the nicestt truck drivers I have ever met